Urban designer Ken Greenberg is our organization’s co-founder. Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Toronto, he’s been keeping a daily diary. We’re publishing some of his thoughts and reflections here, in the hope that they help connect us as we experience this moment of great stress together. Here are excerpts from Week Two: March 19 to 25. (Find Week One here.)
Thursday, March 19, 2020
The city is grey and somber today, somehow capturing the mood. Today, the streets are more and more empty, along with the parks and squares and all the indoor places where we have been used to congregating.
We are now learning how long this may really take. In all probability the only other human being I will be in close actual contact with for the foreseeable future is my wife, Eti.
She and I went for a short walk up to Queen Street to pick up an enlarged photograph [we ordered] as a birthday gift for a friend turning 65—there was going to be a party, but that has now been postponed. Even on the walk I found myself almost irritable and nervous as we passed others scurrying by. This need for evasion is running against my every instinct to be friendly and sociable, to smile and nod to strangers, to seek out places to have a coffee or share a moment in the company of my fellow beings.
But there is something to look forward to this evening: there will a show of support for health care workers, taking a page from Italy and Spain, tonight at 7:30 PM (and I think from now on), making noise with pots and pans from balconies, porches and windows. We are circulating the info to our neighbours. I think we and they (the health care workers) need this and it would be a good morale booster for the building. [Follow #Cheer4HealthCareWorkers]
Friday, March 20, 2020
I went to sleep easily but then woke up at 2 AM with thoughts crowding into my head–a delayed reaction to absorbing how things are changing. Just a few short days ago we were all so busy, communicating in sound bites because we didn’t have the time or patience for more; grabbing meals off the corner of our desks; racing from one thing to another. For so many of us, what we do every day has played a big role in defining who we are. But what if we are not doing it anymore, or doing it less and less? I feel for younger people, whose lives are being interrupted–education put on hold, careers interrupted, livelihoods and plans challenged.
This moment is profoundly reductive.
If you believe, as I do, that human beings are resilient and have enormous capacity to pull together in the face of shared threats, it is uplifting to see the extraordinary efforts of dedicated health care workers, governments at all levels and most especially volunteers who are coming forward in the most generous and courageous ways. As we find ourselves in our isolated quarters, some completely alone and some with family and loved ones, the final resource we have to tap to its fullest is individual human kindness, not to allow small aggravations to fester, even more sympathy, good listening and care for each other in our small lifeboats.
Eti and I tried to go out for a walk, but the wind was fierce and we didn’t last very long. In the last 20 years, I have never seen Bathurst Street so empty in the middle of the day. Sitting in my office a while ago a pigeon caught my eye as it was foraging for twigs on our roof, I assume to make a nest. He or she came back five or six times and left each time with a large twig in its beak, oblivious to our distress.
Saturday, March 21, 2020
I have just now caught up with the fact that it is officially spring. I watched the sun come up for an hour from my exercise bike. It was comforting. The day is cool but we will apparently have sun all day. My pigeon was back collecting twigs for the nest.
I recall that Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff to US President Barack Obama, famously said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” In so many ways that sentiment seems to be relevant as we come to terms with the COVID-19 crisis.
The Great Depression of the 1930s had earlier taught us that market forces alone can’t always solve the problems posed by an advanced capitalist economy, and that in moments of crisis, firm government action is necessary. That was the origin of no-fault unemployment insurance and it allowed Canadians to weather several post-war recessions. But over time, this didn’t keep up with changes in the economy, notably the changing nature of work and the dramatic increase in businesses using part-time, contract and self-employed workers to cut costs by avoiding minimum labour standards. Now it is clear how insecure that makes many of us, and coverage has been extended to more of those at risk.[Thankfully in Canada,] we are not afraid to spend for the public good. Faced with this crisis, our governments with seemingly non-partisan support are opening the purse strings with incredible speed.
Around the world, CO2 emissions are visibly way down with region-wide restrictions shrinking traffic, shuttering factories and cancelling non-essential air travel. What can be learned from this? Can we now summon the will to permanently take major steps to reduce emissions from commuting, curtail over-consumption and reduce emissions from fossil fuel-powered factories and shipping? Will we become more aware of and responsible for our personal environmental footprints?
Can we–as Rahm Emanuel suggest–make good use of this crisis? Time will tell.
We just went for a long walk in the sun this afternoon from our place to Coronation Park, through Trillium Park and Ontario Place and the Bentway. Walking is what many people are doing, mostly in very small groups. At one point, two young guys were setting off on a run, and as they started, one shouted to no one in particular “F*ck COVID!” as he disappeared down the trail.
Sunday, March 22, 2020
I am simultaneously immersed in two realities this morning: outside through the windows, and inside listening to the radio and connected to world. There was a dramatic El Greco sky with intense light penetrating interspersed white and grey cloud cover. I find myself paying much more attention to all the small and ephemeral things that have passed me by before, like the speed and direction of the winds propelling the clouds across the sky and the patterns they make. The birds, those in flocks and in pairs, and the acrobatic high-flying soloists like the seagulls who seem to be practicing social distancing. My friend the industrious pigeon keeps coming back for more twigs. I track the rustling of the trees, the spruce trees on the roof, and the ones on the ground still bare, and look for emergence of shoots of green starting to come up in the planters.
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
I started off the day with a successful online meeting about a community hub. It involved some 20 people: Brampton City staff, a developer and their consultants, those consultants working on the program and design for the hub. After a rocky start staring a mute screen with no audio we were able to get the technology to work it was truly impressive how quickly we have adapted to the process of screen sharing and multi-party discussions online and how much we were able to get done.
Something I have been talking about today with my colleagues in the design world is the value of building in redundancy as a key factor in making cities resilient, ensuring that there are multiple ways of doing things when one system, network or mechanism fails. The most obvious example is how the internet has come to the rescue as a way of maintaining social cohesion in a time of physical distancing, but others come to mind like being able to walk or bike when it is uncomfortable to share tight spaces in transit vehicles, activating local supply chains when longer ones no longer work, using public buildings for multiple purposes like transforming the immense Javits Convention Center in NYC to a field hospital, converting production lines to new purposes in the breech like shifting from perfume to hand sanitizers etc. It leads to a way of thinking about designing things, places and systems to be inherently multi-valent, capable of many uses and interpretations and nimble conversion.
A non-physical corollary is the tapping of social capital. Studies of cities experiencing terrible heat waves, for example, showed that neighbourhoods–even less affluent ones–where residents knew each other, and had a sense of belonging to a community, were more inclined to look out for each other, particularly the elderly. In times of great need, this accumulated social capital is converted into a valuable resource for self and community preservation.